ST. PAUL, Minn. —Antoine Vermette knows how fluky the difference can be between a solid 55 percent night and a dismal 45 percent night at the faceoff dot — an odd bounce here, a broken stick there, an overeager winger coming in from the side.
“There are always a few bounces — the puck will hit a skate, or the referee’s skate, or bounce funny or whatever,” Vermette said. “Some nights, the bounces go your way and some nights they don’t.”
But he’s also well aware of how big a difference those handful of bounces can make. In their tense Game 3 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, the Hawks won 63 percent of the draws, including 58 percent in the defensive zone and a whopping 80 percent at neutral ice. Against a Minnesota team desperately trying to score to forge a tie and get back in the series, every one of those wins was crucial. Control the puck, control the game.
“If they win the faceoff, they can get a scoring chance out of it and it can lead to a goal,” Vermette said. “So from that defensive side of it, when you’re coming in and approaching the faceoff, you’re totally aware of that. And by winning it, you kind of neutralize that scoring chance right away.”
The Hawks have been doing a lot of that lately, Vermette in particular. Through the first three games of the Wild series, the Hawks have won 57 percent of the draws, with Vermette winning a whopping 69 percent. In fact, since entering the lineup in Game 3 of the first round (the Hawks won a mere 45 percent in the two games without him), Vermette has won 63 percent of his faceoffs —third-best in the NHL behind Washington’s Jay Beagle and Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler.
In a tight, low-scoring series, those handful of extra faceoff wins can be the difference.
“They’re so good with the puck that the faceoff is so important,” Wild forward Zach Parise said. “If you don’t start with the puck, they’re good at exiting their zone, so you’re losing a chance right there. If you don’t win it in the neutral zone, they’re getting into your zone. That’s a huge part of the game.”
Vermette, whose faceoff skills made him that much more attractive at the trade deadline, actually struggled at the dot when he first arrived in Chicago. An extended stint at right wing didn’t help matters. But now back at center, and having taking 94 draws in seven games, he’s found his groove again.
Vermette said that experience goes a long way at the dot — knowing each center’s tendencies, and how to exploit them —as does pre-series scouting. But it’s practice that makes perfect. Or, at least, in the imperfect world of faceoffs, pretty good.
“I’m used to taking a lot of draws a game,” Vermette said. “There’s some rhythm to it. I’ve been taking more draws lately and you get the momentum and the tempo, and a little more involved in the game, which is big for me. I’ve always been involved.”